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Drawing Blanks: Urban Design and the Power of the Pen

With just two weeks to go in my second semester, I like to think that I know just about everything about being a planning student by now. But when 100+ prospective students came to our campus open house last week, an easy question stumped me:

“What about drawing?”

At first I thought she was asking if she needed to have an art background coming into school. A thousand times, no. But instead she was looking to learn how to draw as a planner, which is a much trickier proposition.

Jeffrey Barg | April 15, 2009, 6pm PDT
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With just two weeks to go in my second semester, I like to think that I know just about everything about being a planning student by now. But when 100+ prospective students came to our campus open house last week, an easy question stumped me:

"What about drawing?"

At first I thought she was asking if she needed to have an art background coming into school. A thousand times, no. But instead she was looking to learn how to draw as a planner, which is a much trickier proposition.

As much as professors remind us of the importance of having a good, well-developed drawing hand, they really don't teach us how to do that. In two semesters we've had only one actual hand-drawing assignment, and it was just two weeks long. The conundrum led to an advising conversation that sounded kind of like a relationship gone bad:

"You see, I feel like I'm getting mixed messages from you here," I said.

"What do you mean, baby? You know I love you," came the usual reply.

"Well, you're always saying how important I [and drawing] am to you, but you spend all your time elsewhere [on CAD skills]."

"You've gotta have both "

" and then when I try to have it your way, you hit me [with bad grades] because I can't do it."

"Baby, you know I only hit you ‘cause I love you "

It ended with tears, thrown furniture and soggy pizza. As usual.

At least once a week we're told that we need to be able to do "back-of-the-napkin" drawings of plans and ideas. (A side note, but why is it always back-of-the-napkin, back-of-the-envelope? Maybe it's our environmentalist streak, maybe it's the economy, but don't they ever give planners our own pieces of paper to work on?)

But so far, anyway, we haven't actually learned how to do those drawings.

Sure, I've learned how to Photoshop a butter sculpture of Mikhail Gorbachev into the middle of an urban streetscape, but I still can't draw for bupkes.

What would you have told that bright-eyed prospective student? It later occurred to me that she (or I) could take a fine arts class in drawing, but there you'll learn how to sketch a bowl of fruit or a flower or a naked woman. Appealing, but not all that useful for block renderings (unless you're planning a nudist colony).

On the one hand, I don't want to rely on computers for everything. I know that even the Photoshop functions meant to make a drawing or painting look handmade can't compare to actual ink on paper, and those pictures are important: for selling an idea, for dramatizing the effects of intervention, for sitting in a meeting and helping a client visualize what you're talking about.

But are we clinging to a dead art? Are we only a couple years away from when our restaurant napkins are somehow computerized, with the full Adobe Creative Suite built in?

Professors say no, but I'm not so sure. I've been burned before, and just how much heartbreak is a man supposed to take?

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